Medical thermography is a type of imaging used to identify potential problems in the body. As a diagnostic tool, thermography captures infrared images based on blood flow and hot spots or heat paths in a patient. It does not produce radiation as an X-ray does but it can pick up on abnormalities through its infrared camera technology, which records heat and movement rather than static images. Some practitioners use medical thermography alone as a diagnostic tool, while others use it in combination with X-ray, mammography and other imaging technologies.
Scans using medical thermography produce multi-colored images ranging from bright pinks and reds to blues and yellows across the spectrum. Each color indicates a temperature range in the body, and interpreting medical thermography usually entails matching formations of color to previously charted or diagnosed irregularities in the field of thermography. There are keys, of sorts, that track the presence of heat and its location, giving clues for diagnosing patients.
Although medical thermography is used in locating and pinpointing pain centers, as well as in other medical and even dental assessments, often it is mentioned as a tool in breast cancer screening. There has been some controversy about the effectiveness of thermography in finding cancerous growths early. Some practitioners tout the use of thermographic technology for capturing images of breast tissue because thermography does not transmit radiation to the patient and it has been successful in detecting early-stage tumors in some cases. Studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), however, have concluded that medical thermography is not sensitive enough to find evidence of breast cancer in early stages. Both the NIH and USFDA have concluded that it should not be used to replace mammograms, which do use x-ray radiation, but that it can be a limited tool for some diagnoses when used with other means of examination.
Advances in medical thermography have led to the use of thermal imaging for analysis of problems such as extra-cranial vessel disease, vascular disease, and neuro-musculo-skeletal disorders. Heat pathways and blockages show areas of inflammation and potential patterns for treatment. Alternative medicine practitioners also utilize the heat sensing capabilities for targeting massage and adjustments to provide relief for sufferers of acute pain. Thermography is not a new technology, but the controversy over its effectiveness as a diagnostic tool for breast cancer may lead to new studies and helpful discoveries for the future.